Dr Kim Peters is interested in the role that communication and emotion plays in the structure of society, leadership effectiveness and collective action

Social, Environmental and Organisational research group

Attempting the possible:
Can ambition explain the underrepresentation of women in surgery?

Kim Peters, Michelle Ryan and Helen Fernandes

Surgery is bucking one of the trends in UK medical practice: while the number of women has risen substantially in most specialties, in surgery the rise has been far more modest. According to recent statistics, only 7 percent of surgical consultants are women. At the current rate of a 1% rise every 4 years, it would take 160 years before men and women would be equally represented.

When asked to explain the underrepresentation of women in surgery, people often point to the necessity of working long hours and being on-call. The implication is that such demands require surgeons to sacrifice family time – sacrifices that women may be less willing to make. This explanation – the so-called Opt-Out Revolution, whereby women choose to downplay their ambition and leave successful careers in favour of a balanced life – has gained considerable currency in recent years as an explanation for why women fail to reach high-status positions.

While the existence of such a revolution may provide some explanation for the lack of women in surgery, research being conducted by the University of Exeter, in collaboration with WinS and the RCS, suggests that women’s decisions to opt-out of a career in surgery are more complex. Specifically, our research suggests that it is not that women inherently lack career ambition or are unwilling to make the sacrifices required to succeed in surgery; rather, women will direct their ambition towards careers in which they perceive they are likely to succeed. For many, this is not a career in surgery.

One factor that informs a person’s perceptions of their potential career success is the presence of others who are like them – people who share their attributes, skills and abilities – further up the career ladder. There are two reasons why women may be less likely to perceive that similar others have climbed the surgical career ladder: first, women see surgery as a stereotypically masculine career, thus, when they think of a surgical consultant, they are likely to think of a man; second, this is likely to be reinforced by their actual encounters with surgical consultants, who are predominantly male. Importantly, our research with 128 female surgical trainees has shown that, to the extent that they perceive that their attributes differ from the (stereotypically masculine) traits of surgical consultants, they perceive that they are less likely to succeed in surgery. This in turn reduces their career ambition and their job satisfaction and increases their desire to exit surgery altogether.

If, as our research suggests, people direct their ambition towards those careers where they perceive success to be possible, the secret to attracting more women to a career in surgery is less about changing the career itself, and more about changing women’s perceptions that they have what it takes to succeed. In our current research project we are investigating ways in which these perceptions can be changed, and measuring their impact on women’s ambition to succeed in surgery.

Back to research.